Guest blog by 28 Too Many volunteer Vivien Cohen.
A pink pavilion has appeared on the South Bank on a sunny London afternoon; Leyla Hussein and her colleagues have called it their ‘vagina booth’. Complete with a felted clitoris above the entrance and triangular, embroidered ‘cunting’ around the edges, it begins to invite a certain amount of curious interest. The women start to invite people in, ‘for more vagina talk’. Those who oblige are led into an interior with a distinct Bedouin feel—albeit it a rather yonic one.
Once the audience is settled comfortably, the presentation begins. “What I really want to talk about today” explains Ms Hussein, “it’s a particular subject that many young British girls are facing and it’s called Female Genital Mutilation”. The initial atmosphere of jollity is replaced by one of horror as the facts of FGM are explained and gruesome images of its effects are displayed. Finally, those assembled are played a video of a young girl being subjected to the practice. As her agonized cries fill the small space, nervous smiles are replaced by aghast expressions and tear filled eyes.
Once outside, the shocked audience’s reaction is immediate. “I just feel like I’m ready to do something right now,” explains one woman. Others share her sentiment, and it becomes apparent that although Ms. Hussein’s tactics are perhaps unconventional, they are certainly successful.
The need to educate then general public about FGM has a particular resonance with many of the women behind the vagina booth, including Ms Hussein herself. Leyla Hussein was subjected to FGM in her native Somalia at the age of seven. “Four women held me down”, she recalls. “I felt every single cut, pull, stitching, I felt it. I felt the whole thing. I was screaming so much, I just blacked out.”
Consequently, she has spent much of her adult life campaigning for an end to this brutal practice, knowing first-hand the emotional and physical pain and trauma it causes. One important thing she has highlighted in her efforts is the fact that, whilst people in the UK are becoming more aware of FGM as a practice which happens overseas, the general public are still shockingly ignorant about the scale on which FGM occurs on British soil. There are an estimated 24,000 girls at risk in the UK and, as Ms Hussein points out, “cultural sensitivity is preventing any real discussion around FGM”.
Indeed, one tactic that is used to illustrate this point is when she presents unsuspecting shoppers with a petition, asking them to support FGM, to “help protect our cultural traditions and rights”. Worryingly, she receives 19 signatures in less than thirty minutes and in that time only one person who is asked refuses.
Yet perhaps surprisingly, it is not just the general British public who are ignorant about Female Genital Mutilation. When Ms Hussein opens the dialogue to involve men from practicing communities, it becomes apparent that many of them are also entirely uninformed about the facts.
As a British Somali, it is her own community that she approaches. Amongst a group of older men the general consensus is that, despite the 1985 bill which made FGM illegal in this country, there still exists a massive problem enforcing the law. “If we enforce that law we will end up having eighty percent of the Somali mother s in the UK with a criminal record,” one man tells her.
Next, a group of young men are engaged in the discussion. Theirs is the generation which desperately needs to be empowered to change this engrained tradition, as it is they who have the power to make a difference. Their initial reaction is worrying. They seem to support the practice as one which ‘keeps women calm’. Their views are unsettling —yet despite their bravado it soon becomes apparent that these young men are totally unaware as to what FGM actually entails.
A group of six young, British Somali men are taken to a ‘vagina gallery’ and eventually led to a trio of giant, brightly coloured, plasticine vaginas, on which Ms Hussein proceeds to demonstrate the reality of various FGM procedures. As she picks up a pair of garden shears and approaches the first vagina, to demonstrate FGM type one, the men express shock, with one asking “what, are you going to cut it?”
Having discussed the problem within her own community, and with the general public, Ms Hussein next turns to the British government, petitioning them to “take responsibility for drawing up and enforcing […] a National Strategy and Action Plan to eliminate FGM in the UK”. Since the documentary, the petition has risen to over eighty-eight thousand signatures, making it clear that Ms Hussein’s campaign has not only found a voice, but has been given an overwhelming response.
By putting FGM in the UK under the spotlight, it is possible to highlight its prevalence and also inform people about the dangerous reality of it, and Leyla Hussein has succeeded in doing just that. ‘The Cruel Cut’ documents her determined journey to draw the public’s attention to the reality of FGM in the UK, and secure a pledge from the government that there will be an end to this barbaric practice once and for all. What is made clear through this documentary is that FGM needs to be brought to the top of the political agenda in the UK and that education —not only of the general public but also of practicing communities —is paramount.
The courage of Leyla Hussein and the other women who spoke out in order to make ‘the Cruel Cut’ is truly commendable, and it is by publicising survivor’s stories that a human face can be put on the silent suffering on the millions of women worldwide who have endured this violation.
The call to wipe out FGM in the UK is growing louder and louder, with documentaries such as ‘the Cruel Cut’ proving that those women who once were subjected to that most brutal act of subjugation will no longer allow themselves to be silenced.
There is an e-petition to support this programme and urging the UK Home Office to take responsibility for drawing up and implementing a nationwide action plan to stop FGM in the UK. Please sign the petition and add your voice to the growing number demanding stronger leadership from the UK Government on this issue.
If you are inspired by the brave women in this film then please consider holding a fundraising event or sponsored run to raise money to help our campaign to end FGM. See how you can Make a Difference. You can also donate to 28 Too Many, like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Every action helps to protect more girls from this devastating practice.